A piece in today’s Times:
Teenagers should take a mixture of art and science A-levels to broaden their horizons, the first woman to lead the Russell Group of elite universities says.
Dame Nancy Rothwell said that many young people missed out because they specialised in subjects too early.
The leading neuroscientist and vice-chancellor of Manchester University took A-levels in maths, physics, chemistry and art. She became chairwoman of the Russell Group last month, just before she turned 65.
In her first media interview since the appointment she said that she would support a restructuring of GCSEs and A-levels. “I worry that in the UK we specialise very early for young people and I think we miss out,” she said.
She acknowledged that some students took the international baccalaureate. “Compared to many countries, we do specialise too early,” she said. “I had this in my school. I had this terrible choice between subjects. And I didn’t really want to give some of them up.” [J4MB: Right. Because you didn’t want to give some of them up (almost 50 years ago) the system should be changed now. Narcissism, much?]
“Obviously schools are under pressure but [I would support] changing the way that GCSEs and A-levels are structured so that they weren’t so intense, but pupils could take more.
“Doing more than three or four A-levels is really challenging. If they were a bit lighter and pupils could take a broader range of subjects that would give a more balanced education.”
Dame Nancy said that creativity was not the preserve of arts subjects and should be part of science. [J4MB: Should rational thinking then be a part of arts subjects?] She praised universities that offered credits to students taking courses outside their main discipline, such as physics students learning about Chinese culture.
Children should have more practical science lessons and assessment of hands-on science should be reintroduced in exams, she said. “To me, science isn’t something you learn in the textbook,” she said. “The real magic of science is discovering something you didn’t know before.”
Dame Nancy added that face-to-face teaching at university was essential during the pandemic. She said: “Nobody has any evidence whatsoever of infection through teaching. [Infected] staff numbers are very low.”
Infection rates at many universities peaked before teaching started. “The measures that have been taken by universities on campus make it in most people’s views safer than going to the shops,” she said.
“If everything does go online, we will not be able to meet the learning expectations or outcomes of students. We won’t be attracting international students, students may be dropping out.”
Russell Group universities, which support at least a quarter of a million jobs, have put more than £2 billion of capital projects on hold due to the pandemic. “Every university can tell you a story about a couple of projects that they’ve paused,” she said. “They’re also pausing a lot of their long-term maintenance. That stores up problems later.”
Universities also struggled to cope with too much red tape from regulatory bodies. “We have welcomed the government’s move towards the bonfire of bureaucracy,” she said. “A very obvious one for us is the amount of reporting we do to the Office for Students. [J4MB: Hmm, she doesn’t suggest scrapping Athena Swan.]
“Data collection and monitoring are good. But is it worth it? Sometimes, we’re collecting the same data for different organisations.
“Some of those organisations have relaxed their requirements during Covid. What we’re saying is, let’s look at what we haven’t missed and what we could do away with in the future.”
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